All About Bento Boxes
When you decide to start packing bentos, one of the first thing you need to acquire is an appropriate box. There are a gazillion boxes available online or in brick and mortar stores (if you’re lucky to have the right kinds of stores in your area). These boxes range in price from about $2 for small plastic boxes up to $50 for big thermal lunch box systems. The most important thing you need to keep in mind when choosing a box is the appetite of the person using it and the number of meals or snacks that you will be packing for the day.
In the past, my general technique for choosing bento boxes was to buy every stinkin’ box I could get my hands on and then try it out. I’ll admit that this was not the most practical or economical way to go about building my bento collection, but I did manage to get a lot of bento boxes pretty quickly! With time and use, I figured out which boxes held the right amount of food, which were easiest to pack and which ones lasted the longest. Pretty soon, I noticed that I was reaching for the same boxes over and over again and I pared down my collection a bit. I still have about 20 lunch boxes though, so don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m some bento box minimalist. I’m a flawed woman.
One thing I’d like to note is that I do not think you need an official “bento” box to pack your lunches bento-style! There are many, many suitable food storage boxes that work well for packing bento lunches. In fact you may have one in your cupboard right now. The main thing to keep in mind when choosing a box is that you don’t want it to be too deep. I recommend starting with a container that is about an inch and a half deep. That may seem small, but this size will allow you pack the box tightly and fill it right up to the rim with food. If you pack your box snugly the food won’t move around and mix together when it’s in transit. That being said, boxes that are made specifically for bento meals will be fairly easy to pack and tend to be a little cuter.
Shall we examine some of the styles available to us? Let’s begin!
Hinged Lid Boxes
Single layer boxes with hinged lids are some of these easiest bento boxes to get your hands on. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes and they are very easy to pack. I refer to these boxes as “hinged lid boxes” because their lids usually have a hinge on either side that clips onto the bottom layer of the box. They are usually about an inch and a half deep but their other dimensions vary greatly.
If I am choosing a hinged lid box to pack a lunch for one of my kids, I usually choose a box that’s about 4 x 6 inches (like the blue polka dotted one above). For a snack, I choose either the oval or triangle box. The Ratatouille and Fruit Basket boxes are a bit larger so I use those for my own lunches. When I’m packing lunches or snacks, I use a hinged lid box more often than any other type of box in my collection.
Sources of boxes pictured: Ratatouille box — Pixar company store (Sorry, I’ve never seen another box like this one), green triangle box and yellow oval box — Ichiban Kan brick and mortar store, blue dot box and Fruit Basket box — Daiso Japan. More source information down below.
Stacking or multi-tiered boxes are another common type of bento box. Typically they have at least three parts — a lid and two layers that hold food. They may also have additional layers to hold food, a self-sealing lid to cover one of the layers, a layer that divides the two food boxes and/or a layer designed to hold silverware or chopsticks. They often require an additional elastic band or “belt” to hold the layers closed, though some models (such as the one with a polar bear up above) close with hinged lids.
Stacking boxes come in many shapes, but I personally prefer rectangular or oval boxes. Again, you’ll want to choose the size of a stacking box based on the amount of food the person using it will eat. Most of the stacking boxes I have are sized for a toddler or preschooler, but I have a few larger ones that can be used for an older child or an adult.
If you’d like to get a more thorough view of how stacking bento boxes work, I’ve made videos demonstrating two different types that can be viewed here and here. You can also check out many examples of lunches I’ve packed in stacking boxes in the Bento Gallery.
Sources of boxes pictured above: dark blue skinny box — Ichiban Kan brick and mortar store, polar bear box — Jbox.com, light blue bird box — All Things for Sale, all others — Daiso Japan. More sources down below.
Novelty boxes are the cutest bento boxes in my opinion and I find them very hard to resist. They are fun for me to play with and my kids looove to have their lunches packed into them.
The only downside? They’re a pain in the neck to pack. It’s those weird shapes! Most of the food my kids eat aren’t shaped like a car or a jelly bean, so I either have to pack a lot of individual small foods to fill all the nooks and crannies, or I have to cut things to fit which is too fussy for me on most mornings.
Also, unlike other bento boxes whose layers are a fairly consistent depth, novelty boxes tend to have really short, thin layers for some reason. Three of the boxes above — the hamburger, the jelly bean and the Lego box — all have layers that are an inch deep or less. Annoying!
Take a closer look at my panda bento box in this video. If you’d like to see lunches packed in my novelty box collection you can take a peek here:
- Hamburger box
- Panda box
- Car box
- Jelly Bean box
- Lego box (these are mixed in with the photos of stacking boxes)
The final style of lunch boxes I use regularly are lunch “systems”. These lunch boxes can be purchased individually or as sets that come with inner containers and a thermal lunch bag (depending on brand). Generally, these boxes are sized for older kids or adults. I also find that they hold the right amount of food for my elementary school-aged son when I am packing a morning snack as well as a lunch.
For a comprehensive, always up-to-date look at lunch box systems, check out my Lunch Box Comparison Chart.
The system pictured above with the multi-colored inner containers is the Laptop Lunches box. The Laptop Lunch box is one of my favorite sets in my collection and I use it at least a couple of times per week. I have the original version and love it, but from everything I’ve heard the new Version 2.0 box is even better because more of the boxes have lids and you can add additional pieces to your set. (I haven’t tried that version though.) I don’t recommend this set for younger children (under age 4) because it holds too much food for them and it is difficult for little fingers to open. It’s great for older kids though.
The other set I use frequently is the Easy Lunchbox. (I wrote a full review of this set here.) The Easy Lunchbox holds about the same amount of food as the Laptop Lunch box but it only has two pieces — a food box and a lid. It’s easy to open, but the flip side of that is that it can be hard to keep closed without a rubber band or elastic bento band.
I’ve also used OOTS Deluxe Lunchbox and Mr. Bento sets. They are good systems, but I do not use them frequently any more because they are large and work better for adults. Both my husband and I work from home so we rarely pack lunches for ourselves now but if either of us started working in an office again, we’d likely use these lunch sets regularly.
Lunch Bags, Flatware and Drink Containers
One more thing to consider is that you’ll need something to pack your bento boxes in. (I do not recommend putting a bento box directly in your backpack or purse.) I like thermal lunch bags for this. We use Thermos and Laptop Lunches brands because they are reputable brands and I’m confident they are lead-free. I pack the bento boxes into these bags with two ice packs minimum in order to keep the food at a safe temperature until lunch time.
I’ll occasionally pack something warm in the boys’ lunches and when I do that, I put it in a wide-mouth Thermos Funtainer food jar.
I also have a selection of mini-flatware that I put in the lunch boxes when I pack something that can’t be eaten with fingers. These were all acquired at Daiso and Ichiban Kan brick and mortar stores but you can find something similar at Target or other big box stores. You can also just pack regular flatware.
There are a few photos of what the lunch bags look when they’re packed in the gallery.
A Few Notes About Safety
I’m often asked about the safety of plastic bento boxes, particularly in regards to whether or not they are BPA-free. I found a very thorough post about this topic on Just Bento that goes into a lot of detail. Maki did a lot of research and reading on this topic and I highly recommend that you read her article to get an overview. The upshot is that the brands of Japanese bento boxes I use are from reputable manufacturers and appear to be BPA-free.
There has also been concern about thermal lunch bags that contain lead in the last few years. I recommend purchasing bags from reputable manufacturers and reading labels to be sure that the bag you are considering has been tested for lead.
Here are some of the places you can purchase bento boxes:
- All Things For Sale — Lots of bento boxes and accessories at extremely reasonable prices. This is my favorite place to buy bento gear.
- Amazon.com has a great selection of bento gear now and their inventory is always growing. Search for “bento box” and see what turns up.
- Jbox.com carries a large selection of high quality bento boxes. You’ll pay a bit more for these, but they’ll last a long time.
- eBay.com — Everything is available on eBay, and bento boxes are no exception.
Brick and Mortar:
- Daiso Japan is my favorite place to buy bento boxes and supplies because they are economical and of fairly high quality for the money. Daiso does not offer individual online orders, but you can make by-the-case, wholesale orders.
- Ichiban Kan — if you visit or live in the San Francisco Bay area, Ichiban Kan has three stores selling bento supplies at low prices. I visit my neighborhood store waaaay too frequently.
- If neither of these stores are located near you, I recommend you check out Biggie’s Bento Store Locator at Lunch in a Box.
- Big box stores — I’ve found boxes that work for bento lunches at big chain stores, including Target, The Container Store and Dollar Tree. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll start seeing boxes you can use for bento lunch packing everywhere.
Disclaimer: I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com, Jbox.com and Easy Lunchboxes. If you purchase products through the links on my site, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price. However, I don’t recommend products that I don’t personally use and enjoy, so please don’t refer to me as “That Tool of The Man“.